With thousands of believing refugees crowding into the Sabatisch community in Slovakia in the 1620s, every day brought its share of adventures. Nearly every day some died from the cold, hunger, and disease, while more kept coming. Then, in the thick of things, Bethlen Gabor came.
Bethlen Gabor was the ruler of the land of Siebenbürgen (that is, Transylvania, now part of Romania) six hundred miles to the southwest. He was a Calvinist Protestant, but he fought with the Turks against Catholic Austria and Moravia. In 1621 his men came to Sabatisch with a great number of horsemen and soldiers, and many wagons. First they read a letter saying their prince wanted the believers to settle in his country. When no one responded, they grabbed 185 men, women, and children, threw them into the wagons and set off.
For many days the captured believers traveled southward in three groups. At first they wondered if they would all end up in different places. But in Romania the kind princess, Susanna Karolina, had them all brought to the Alwinz castle, 11 kilometres southeast of what is now the city of Alba Iulia. There, down by the Maros River, on the flats across from the castle she showed them where they could build a new community.
At first things went hard. Until they could build houses the people lived in the castle stables. Bethlen Gabor’s men kept bringing more and more from the destroyed communities in Moravia until over a thousand believers lived there. Six hundred and ninety five came during the Christmas week alone.
Once more the believers turned sick from overcrowded conditions, and during that first winter at Alwinz over four hundred of them died—many of them children. But when spring came, the houses by the river took shape, and the boys got the crops out, they took fresh courage. Within a few years five hundred families lived in relative comfort and peace at Alwinz. They worked hard, lived honestly, and became widely known in Romania for their skill in operating flour mills.
Great was the joy of the believers after a number of years, when Andreas Ehrenpreis, elder of the church at Sabatisch came to visit them and found things in good order. But in 1658, after Bethlen Gabor died and the Turks no longer lived in peace with the Romanian Protestants, disaster struck.
Without warning the Turks fell on the community at Alwinz burning it to the ground, the believers barely escaping with their lives by fleeing into the princess’ castle and drawing the gates behind them.
A year later the Hungarians attacked and did more damage. Then, in July 1660, with the community only half rebuilt and the wheat still green, the Turks came galloping in again.
Whoever could fled to the castle. Some of the brothers threw what they could onto three wagons and tried to get them across the bridge. But the Turks were too quick. They seized the horses, threw the wagons into the river, and burned all the buildings again. Only one from the community lost his life during this raid, but all the crops were destroyed, and 150 people died from hunger and disease in the crowded castle that winter.
The following year the Turks came through Alwinz the third time, taking all livestock that remained. The men and boys of the community took to the hills to hunt and fish, and to find wild fruits to keep their families alive. But in the summer of 1662, with all of Romania now secure under the Sultan’s rule, they began to build their houses and plant crops again. The local pasha (the Turkish Sultan’s representative) gave them a charter that let them live in peace for twenty years.
It was a good peace. The church prospered again, but it did not last. In 1687 the Romanians rebelled against the Turks and fought for nineteen years. For the last time the community at Alwinz burned down and the believers fled to the princess’ castle.
Little by little they had gotten discouraged. One of their leaders abandoned the flock and returned to the world. His helper, Michael Wipf, was a man of weak character and the brothers did not manage to rebuild their community. By the time the war ended and Romania lay once more under the rule of Catholic Austria, they all settled on little plots of land and did the best they could where they found themselves.
In 1738 the plague struck Romania. Countless people died in the Alwinz area and throughout the country. So many died they could not be buried. Bodies, half eaten by dogs, lay about on the streets and in the houses, and thousands fled to the hills. Even there they died, but the believers at Alwinz, under their new leader, Josef Wipf, made a promise not to abandon one another or to forsake their faith in Christ. Josef died too, but those that remained sent word to Sabatisch in Slovakia and a new man, Märtl Roth, came to take care of the church.
In 1747 the congregation chose a second servant, Josef Kuhr. For fifteen years the church at Alwinz struggled on. From Slovakia came the bad news that the Sabatisch community had given up and become Roman Catholic. But a new group from Kaernten in Austria had moved to Romania and joined the church. They greatly encouraged the believers at Alwinz.That is, as long as they could.
In 1762 the Jesuits came to Alwinz and trouble began. As he had done at Sabatisch in Slovakia, the Jesuit Delpini ordered all believers at Alwinz to come to the meetinghouse and hear him preach. With great oratorical skill he told them how Roman Catholic saints had so much faith they could move mountains.
“But the Anabaptists,” he went on to say, “have accomplished nothing. They have worked no miracles and their churches are dying out. This means God is not with you, don’t you think?”
No one stood up to challenge what Delpini said, except Josef Kuhr, the second servant. “What you have told us from the Bible I know as well as you,” Josef said. “But what you say about your many saints I do not believe. It is not true your saints have moved physical mountains. That is not even what Christ meant. These natural mountains are to stay in their place as God created them. But through faith and prayer we can move mountains of opposition that stand in our way!”
With clear brave words Josef Kuhr explained why he could not deny what he believed. He explained why he would never join the Roman Catholic Church, and then, to the congregation he called before walking out the door: “Whoever is my brother and sister, follow me!” Not one person followed.
Märtl Roth, the leader of the congregation asked the Jesuit for more time. But in his heart he had already given up. “What might we gain by all getting killed and having our children scattered?” he asked when Josef Kuhr challenged him after the meeting. “Sooner or later we will have to become Catholics anyway. Why not just go along with it for now and if God wants us to live another way he will make it possible in due time.”
Josef Kuhr did not agree with Märtl Roth. In fact he was horrified, and told him so. Even though Josef had worked hard and owned a lovely farm with fruit trees, a garden that important visitors came to see, milk cows, ducks, and hives of bees, he never flinched at the prospect of losing everything for Christ. Not even his children (all of whom turned Catholic) could make him change his mind.
With the help of local authorities the Jesuit Delpini had Josef Kuhr imprisoned in a monastery at Klausenburg, near the Hungarian border. Then he moved onto the Kuhr farm, had a nice house built for himself, and set out to bring the rest of the believers at Alwinz into the Roman Catholic Church.
The first to flee when she realised the church at Alwinz would not hold out was a young believer, Margaretha Wipf. She found her way, on foot, to the community of the Kaerntner believers at Kreuz near present-day Sibiu, Romania. Not long after her, a group of twenty believers fled Alwinz. That included Hans and Judith Stahl with four children, Michael Wipf with two children, Jakob Stutz and his mother Susanna, a weaver named Josef and his mother, and a seventeen-year-old boy, Lorenz Tschetter. It also included Anna Kleinedler Wipf with her five children, Elias, Anna, Hans, Samuel, and Gretl.
The group never reached Kreuz. The police followed them, caught them all except Jakob Stutz, and locked them up in the Alwinz castle. From there they took Hans Stahl and Michael Wipf to prison, but let the women, young people, and children go.
With Margaretha Wipf, who had been captured at Kreuz and returned, the women promptly set out again. This time Susanna Stutz, Judith Stahl, and Anna Wipf with her children made it through. But the police arrested them at Kreuz, in the dead of winter, and brought them back to Alwinz.
The believers at Kreuz could not leave this be. They sent Veit Glanzer, one of their brothers, after the women with a team of horses and a sleigh. He managed to rescue them, but for the third time the police caught them and took them back.
At Alwinz the believers lived in great distress. Nearly half of them had already given up and become Catholic. Of the rest some wanted to keep the faith but only in the lukewarm way they had lived for many years. Only a small group, mainly women and young people, held with the believers at Kreuz and the three brothers, Josef Kuhr, Hans Stahl, and Michael Wipf lay in prison.
The police harassed the faithful women and young people the most. They took the teenage believer, Lorenz Tschetter, and forced him to live with a family that had turned Catholic. When he tried to run away they beat him. But the fourth time he tried, he escaped and made his way to Kreuz where he lived in hiding.
In prison, Michael Wipf gave up his faith after a severe beating. Hans Stahl escaped and managed to sneak into Alwinz several times, at night, to see his wife. But the police kept close watch on her, and when the women refused to come to mass, they began to beat them too.
Anna Wipf, after a severe beating, agreed to come to mass. So did Judith Stahl and Susanna Stutz. But as soon as they had opportunity, they fled to Kreuz again. By this time Delpini was furious. He sent the police after the women, caught them and threw them into jail at Sibiu.
When Hans Stahl learned what had happened he dared sneak up to the prison and talk with his wife and children. He found them hungry and went to buy them bread. But when he tried to get it to them, the police caught him. They also caught Lorenz Tschetter at Kreuz and took him with the whole group to Alwinz.
Back at Alwinz the authorities released the women and children, keeping close watch on them, but they sent Hans Stahl and Lorenz Tschetter to Klausenburg. From there they drove Hans, with Josef Kuhr, across the mountains into exile in Poland. Because of his youth they kept Lorenz for a time but he escaped and found his way back to Kreuz.
So did Judith Stahl and Anna Wipf with her five children. By now they knew the road well! But once more the authorities caught up with them and locked Anna and her twelve-year-old daughter, Gretl, up in the Sibiu jail.
This time, they did not get out, and when they heard of the believers escaping across the Carpathian Mountains without them, Anna’s hopes of reunion with the rest of her children, and her brothers and sisters in Christ, grew dim.
Thankfully, Anna and Gretl Wipf were not alone in jail. Andreas Wurtz’s step-daughters Elisabeth and Christina, Paul Glanzer’s wife and her baby, Susanna, Martin and Christian Glanzer, and Mathias Hofer, also remained there. And great was their joy when after several years, they suddenly heard Paul Glanzer speaking beneath the high barred window of their cell. He told them how the rest of the rest of the believers had found their way through Turkish lands to Russia, and how they now lived in a wonderful new community beside the Desna River.
It sounded like a dream, and the hopes of the imprisoned believers revived. Elisabeth and Christina had already written to the Empress of Austria, describing their plight, and had reason to believe they could soon go free. But Anna and Gretl Wipf were not from Kaernten. They came from the Alwinzer Anabaptists, and knew the authorities would never let them go—unless they gave up their faith.
Shortly after Paul Glanzer (who could not risk being seen by the guards) left to wait on his wife and brothers in Turkish territory, Anna and Gretl Wipf decided to risk their lives and follow him. Watching their chance, they slipped out of jail in broad daylight, right past the dozing guards. Then they fled south and east, by night and through the woods, toward the Carpathian Mountains. Getting their bearings from people along the way, they found the path up into mountain forests, wading through wild streams, and scrambled up precipices until they also crossed the range and came down to the old Greek and Turkish city of Bucharest.
What now? Where was Paul?
Anna and Gretl had no idea. But wandering through the open bazaar, they suddenly spotted him buying a bridle for his horse! Planning to leave town that very day and return to Russia, he had just decided he could go no further with his old bridle and had returned for a new one. Now, with tears of joy, the three praised God for putting that thought in his mind.
With Paul Glanzer, Anna and Gretl travelled to the Turkish city of Jassy that fall. The next spring they set out again and arrived at Vishenka in the Ukraine, on July 9, 1772. What a day of rejoicing! There Anna embraced her four children she had not seen for years. Elias, her oldest son, had just married Christina Nagler (the first wedding of the believers in Russia). Her daughter Anna was twenty-one already, and Hans and Samuel in their mid-teens.
At Vishenka in the Ukraine, Anna Wipf, from whom all Wipfs now living in Hutterite communities descend, died in peace twenty-three years later, among the brothers and sisters she loved. Without her husband, through unspeakable trials with her little ones, she had kept her faith in Christ and raised her children in his community. Anna Wipf must have well over 20,000 descendants in Hutterite Colonies today.
The story “Anna Wipf: 1725-1795” was originally published on March 3, 2009 by the Rocky Cape Christian Community, a Hutterite community in Tasmania, Australia.